TOKYO -- A year after Toyota’s RAV4 crossover was denied an influential top safety rating, an updated design underwent new crash testing this week that engineers promise will deliver high honors and redeem the nameplate’s reputation.
The tests, performed Tuesday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, assess the performance of the 2015 RAV4 in small-overlap frontal crashes.
Poor results in a July 2013 test disqualified the RAV4 from attaining the IIHS’s coveted Top Safety Pick rating. Toyota engineers pledged at the time to overhaul and make the vehicle stronger so that a mid-cycle refreshing would pass.
Toyota Motor Corp. Chief Safety Technology Officer Secretary Seigo Kuzumaki said the RAV4 scored a “good” in Tuesday’s test, thereby earning the institute’s Top Safety Pick status.
Official results of the latest test won’t be released until December, IIHS spokesman Russ Rader said. The RAV4 needs a small-overlap rating of at least “acceptable” to earn Top Safety Pick.
While declining to confirm results, Rader said they look promising. “You can say that from the initial measurements, it looks like a significant improvement,” Rader said in an email.
Earning a better safety rating would erase a rare blemish on the RAV4’s safety record. The vehicle is the brand’s No. 3 best-selling nameplate and the sixth best-selling U.S. truck through October. Sales rose 26 percent to 223,593 units in the first 10 months.
Toyota has been upgrading several models to enhance small-overlap protection, including the RAV4, Rader said.
Other vehicles that have fared poorly in the test include the Camry sedan, the Corolla compact and the Prius V hybrid wagon.
The 2013 Camry ranked poor in the test. But the 2014 model improved to acceptable, and the 2015 edition notched a good.
Kuzumaki said the 2015 Corolla has not yet been tested. The 2014 model scored marginal in the small-overlap test. The 2014 Prius V is rated poor, as is the Prius C compact hybrid.
Engineers overhauled the structural design of the RAV4 to make it stronger and more resilient in the crash, Kuzumaki said.
The improvements added weight, he said. He declined to say how many pounds were added. But he said that they would be shed in the next full-model change built off redesigned platform.
The overlap tests simulate what happens when a driver crashes the left front quarter of a vehicle into an object such as a tree.
They are not yet included in the federal government's five-star ratings. But researchers say they are responsible for an outsized share of driving deaths. The IIHS ratings have become a major marketing factor for brands that perform well.
IIHS began using the small-overlap tests in 2012 but telegraphed the change to carmakers in 2009. Some manufacturers, including Honda Motor Co. and Subaru, were quicker to incorporate changes than others.
Active over passive
Engineers say Toyota has incorporated small-overlap safety features into its next-generation product platform, known as TNGA, short for Toyota New Global Architecture.
The first cars built under the new approach are scheduled for introduction in 2015.
Toyota is struggling to improve the old-school protections provided by technologies such as strong frames, even as it plunges into cutting-edge computer-driven active safety systems.
Chief Safety Technology Officer Moritaka Yoshida said automakers have reached a point of diminishing returns in eking improvements from passive systems such as stronger bodies and seat belts. Faster gains will come from technologies that prevent crashes in the first place, he said.
But he said there will likely be a change in the way bodies and frames are designed because of active safety systems.
That is because active safety systems will reduce the speeds at which accidents happen, when they can’t be prevented entirely. This will lessen the force of impact and possibly allow for new light-weighting technologies to be employed.